The towers that be
By Edward Fitzpatrick
Gusts of wind rattled the Hadley Mountain fire tower, plastering the American flag against a tower window.
But inside, the summit guide, James Huntley, remained unflappable, talking not just about the tower and the view, but about why people seek peaks in the first place.
“Everyone is up here for the same reason–to look at mountains and feel freedom from things that bind them back in society,” the 19-year-old mountaintop maitre d’ said from beneath a fedora, which was festooned with blue jay and grouse feathers.
In earlier decades, observers staffed such towers, keeping an eye out for forest fires in addition to providing the kinds of greetings and guidance offered by Huntley. But as the need for the fire towers declined, the structures were abandoned and fell into disrepair. When the last observer retired in 1990, the state began to tear down some of the towers.
Now, momentum is swinging. Private groups are restoring towers. State government and a nonprofit historical preservation group, Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), have nominating 10 towers for the National Registry of Historic Places—seven in the Adirondacks, three in the Catskills—hoping to land additional funds for restoration. And officials want to begin the summit guide program on other mountains.
In short, fire towers are finding new life—not as sentries, but as preserved pieces of Adirondack history and as attractions, usually well-suited for family day hikes.
“Fire towers are a bit like lighthouses–people are drawn to them,” remarked Steven Engel-hart, executive director of AARCH. “There’s something about getting high up and seeing the world at this great height. There is a little romance with fire towers.”
There are also practical considerations. The High Peaks are being over-used, Engelhart said, and the fire towers provide a way to draw people to other areas of the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park.
Charles E. Vandrei Jr., a historic preservation officer for the state Department of Environ-mental Conservation, said that a couple of years ago officials realized the Park didn’t have enough places to take kids for a hike on a Saturday. “We need to make the Forest Preserve a little friendlier for people who are not big backwoods types,” he said.
And the fire towers are one way to meet that goal. The Adirondack Explorer visited four of the 10 sites nominated for the National Registry– Mount Arab in St. Lawrence County, Blue Mountain in Hamilton County, Hadley Mountain in Saratoga County and Poke-O-Moonshine in Essex County–and found parents and children in the towers, enjoying the vistas.
“How’s the view?” Peter Mackinson shouted up to his 7-year-old son, Conor, who had just climbed the Blue Mountain fire tower.
“It’s good,” Conor gulped, “but don’t look up at the clouds–it feels like this thing is going to fall over.”
The Mackinsons, New Jersey residents staying at the Hedges, a lodge in Blue Mountain Lake, said they had never heard of the fire tower before. But that morning at breakfast they saw a place mat with a sketch of the mountain, topped by a tower, and Conor wanted to go. That afternoon, they set off, not completely certain the old structure would still be there.
“I think they’re kind of neat,” Peter Mackinson said upon arriving at the Blue Mountain tower. “They give you a reason to climb up.”
At the beginning of the trail, near the registry, the Mackinsons picked up a trail guide, which contains information relating to 14 spots marked along the way. The blurbs tell about the area’s geology, trees and history, and the last entry tells about the 35-foot tower, built in 1917.
Like others, the tower went up in response to fires in 1903 and 1908 that had burned nearly 1 million acres of the Adirondack Park. Because of poor logging practices, the Park was littered with slash, or discarded tree tops and branches. And with coal-fired locomotives chugging north and spewing cinders, the woods were like a tinderbox.
The first 11 firetowers went up in 1909. Eventually, there were 120 firetowers in the state, including 61 in the Adirondacks. But as the years wore on, the need for firetowers declined. Better logging made the Park less susceptible to fire, and when there was a drought, planes and helicopters patrolled. Also, more people moved into the region, and eventually, the general public was reporting 84 percent of fires.
In the 1970s, the state began tearing down Adirondack towers that were not in keeping with regulations prohibiting man-made structures on public lands designated as Wilderness. Meanwhile, in non-Wilderness areas, vandals often damaged abandoned towers, and so the state removed some of those amid concerns about safety and liability. The attrition continues today, with the state targeting four more towers for removal in the Adirondacks.
But the state also has designated 29 towers in the Adirondacks and Catskills to be retained or transferred to private hands. Often, private groups are leading the preservation charge. The Adirondack Mountain Club organized a meeting of numerous groups in 1993, focusing on the Blue Mountain tower and trying to spark interest in other preservation efforts. Now, Friends of Poke-O-Moonshine and Friends of Mount Arab are working under the auspices of Adirondack Architectural Heritage. And the Hadley Fire Tower Committee has received $5,500 in grants from International Paper Co. to help refurbish its 48-foot tower.
Not surprisingly, most people climbing the towers said they support such preservation efforts, but a few had doubts. “What’s the point?” asked Peter Gucker of Chesterfield, Essex County, as he made his way toward the Poke-O-Moonshine tower. He soon answered his own question: “If it’s an attraction to get people out, it’s great. It would help with education about the environment and excessive use of the trails. That’s part of our responsibility.”
Education is a big part of the summit guide program, now in its fourth year at Hadley Mountain. Huntley spends five days a week living in a cabin near the summit. He talks to hikers about the tower and the mountain. But he also shares his thoughts on conservation and his own naturalist philosophy. When kids ask how he can live in his cabin without heat or running water, he tells them it’s easy to leave modern conveniences behind.
The only things Huntley seems to mind are the mice that keep creeping into his cabin. He has traps set all about and, like a gunfighter of old, carves a notch for each kill. Mostly, though, he spends his time playing guitar, reading and writing in a journal. The journal contains this entry, quoting naturalist John Muir:
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.
Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.
The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the stars their energy,
While cares will drop away from you like the leaves in autumn.
Vandrei said he’d like to see guides in other towers. “It’s one way to make people appreciate what they have a little bit better,” he said. “If they feel a connection to it, they are more likely to want to preserve it.”
“You have a marvelous opportunity to educate,” said James N. Briggs, chairman of the Blue Mountain Fire Tower Committee. He recounted a comment from the manager of a Girl Scout camp in Broome County: “When you get up on one of those towers, your mind opens as wide as your eyes.”
How to get there:
Directions: From downtown Lake Luzerne, take Rockwell Street across Hudson River. Turn right on Stony Creek Road and go 3 miles. Turn left on Hadley Hill Road and go 4.6 miles to Tower Road. Turn right and go 1.5 miles to lot on left.
Trail: Two-mile trail to 2,675-foot summit. Views of Great Sacandaga Lake to southwest, High Peaks far to the north, Vermont’s Green Mountains on eastern horizon.
How to get to other firetowers:
Directions: From Tupper Lake, travel 4 miles west on NY 3. Turn left on Conifer Road and go 1.8 miles. Turn left on Eagle Crag Lake Road and go 0.9 miles to lot on right.
Trail: One-mile trail to 2,545-foot summit. Steady climb, but easiest of these four trails. Views of Mount Arab Lake and Eagle Crag Lake to south, Mount Matumbla to north and Raquette Pond to northeast.
Directions: From at intersection of NY 28 and NY 30 in Blue Mountain Lake, go 1.4 miles north on NY 28/30 to clearing on right side of road.
Trail: Two-mile trail to 3,759-foot summit. Toughest of the four trails, with most climbing in second mile. Pick up brochure near registry. Great views of Blue Mountain Lake to west and High Peaks to northeast.
Directions: From Northway Exit 33, go 3 miles south on NY 9 to campground and trailhead on right.
Trail: Steep 1.2-mile trail to 2,180-foot summit. Noise of Northway at outset, but spectacular views at top, with Lake Champlain to east and High Peaks to southwest.